Saturday, April 09, 2011

Escaping the Moral Certainty Dilemma

A Christian friend recently forwarded me an article about women in Islam.  The article described a lot of horrible ways women are mistreated as part of their religion.  I have no basis for judging the truthfulness or not of the claims.  But for argument's sake, what if it is true and that the God of Islam in his revelation really did mean that women should be treated as sub-human creatures.  Is my Christian friend then justified in concluding that Islam is barbaric and its God is capricious and immoral?

Let me consider possible ways a Muslim might reply:
  1. We cannot understand God and the reasons for all his commandments.  He has the long-term perspective and what seems immoral to us may actually be for a good purpose that we cannot fathom.
  2. God made us, not we him.  He is the potter, we are the clay. Who are we to tell him how we should be treated?  If God determines that some be treated better than others, that is up to him.
  3. Ultimately it is God who determines what is morally right and wrong.  We have to live according to the guidance revealed in his book to us.
Here's the funny thing: these are the very same kind of arguments Christians use when confronted with God's seemingly immoral behavior in the Bible (God ordering massacres of innocents etc., see my original post in this blog: Is God Good?). On a side note: observing Islam is actually pretty helpful for Christians, if they are willing to be self-critical, as it lets them look in a mirror.  Many of the specks or logs they see, actually exist in their own eyes.  Perhaps not all the same outward behaviors, but many of the underlying justifications for their beliefs are shared between the religions.

So, back to the moral issue: what we have are two religions each of which claim absolute certainty in what is morally right and wrong and yet they conflict.  How can we judge which is right?  By using empirical measures of which actually treats people better?  Both would surely both deny that (at least when they discover that their own followers are behaving badly).  Ultimately each claims correctness based on divine revelation.  Can we judge which revelation is correct?  No -- who are we to tell God how he can or cannot reveal himself to humans.  Christians love to critique the divine inspiration of the Koran, but actually many of the same criticisms apply to the books of the Bible.  So we are stuck with two camps claiming "God told me this!"  "No he told me that!"  Each camp can make all kinds of unequivocal proclamations about what is morally right and wrong, but when one investigates one finds there is no basis (beyond blind faith) that it is true

Let's contrast that with the way much-maligned humanism would approach ethical and moral questions.  Here we observe that humans are sentient beings with needs and wants as well as things that hurt and harm them.  We reasonably assume the needs and wants of any one human are not inherently more valuable than any other human.  Then what is morally good and bad is judged based on the amount of good or harm it brings to humans.  In general actions that harm others are morally wrong to the extent that they harm others.  It may not be easy to judge in every case, and there may be gray areas (see a previous post on ethics).  The key is that whether an action is morally good or bad is an empirical question of the good and/or harm caused by the action and this can be investigated.   The secular humanist is not stuck arguing about indemonstrable claims of divine authority, but can judge moral questions on the merits and consequences of the actions.